Tidbits from life in the USSR

Est Reading Time: 5 min

I was swapping some stories with someone born in China about growing up in “communist” countries and I realised just how alien that world is to people who’ve never lived there. When we learn about the history of a place, the sources are often biased towards talking about grand events (WWII, Stalin, GULAGS, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution etc). These were all very important but they don’t necessarily give the exact flavour of life in the 80s. I’ve compiled a list of random tidbits about life in Moscow from that era, mostly about family members but sometimes my own memories. It’s a reminder of how people in other environments can spend most of their lives preoccupied with things whose existence most people mightn’t be aware of.

  • In modern economies, a deficit means the spending is higher than that revenue. When I was a child, the term was colloquially used to describe a shortage of consumer goods. This included things like toilet paper. Adults were often on the hunt for toilet paper. When you could score some, you’d try to score big-time.
  • There was such a thing as getting your umbrella repaired. Otherwise, where the hell would you find another? Of course, if we’re to live sustainably as a species we’d be doing this that shit a lot more so get used to it.
  • Because most non-staple food items were also rare, people like my parents would carry a shopping bag with them at all times. Maybe on the way home from work you’d pass a store that had something and after an hour’s queueing, you’d get your hands on it.
  • I only ever remember seeing an empty store shelves in the USSR with maybe a few pieces of food in the corner. We emigrated by boat so the first non-Soviet place I’ve been to was Kotka, Finland, just across the pond from then-Leningrad. Imagine this 7 year old’s excitement on seeing shelves full of food. I wrote it up in my little diary with many exclamation marks.
  • Indoctrination in the 80s wasn’t waht it used to be, but it still happened. In my kindergarten, I was taught that Lenin was the greatest and best person that ever was. I remember a story of how he admitted to doing something naughty in school even though he’ get a beating because he was So HonestTM. (Maybe Lenin was a descendant of George Washington?)
  • I once told my mum that we should all go to the mausoleum on His birthday dressed in our Sunday finest. I had it all worked out: she’d put on a dress and dad would put on a tie. When she made an excuse, I thought about it for a sec and said accusingly “you don’t love Lenin!” We were on a tram at the time; mum got off at the next stop and basically ran away from eavesdroppers.
  • The USSR had a thing called propiska (literally meaning something like ‘being written up’). You were officially registered to live in a particular city and at a particular address (to the exclusion of others). Moscow and Leningrad were very lucrative places to have your propiska because there were much more jobs, goods, opportunities. When I was in Central Asia in 2011, it looked like remnants of this Soviet system still remain.
  • Private ownership of apartments was practically nonexistent with housing allocated by the government. People were on constant waiting lists, but there was another bizarre institution — a barter system for apartments. You’d find someone who wanted to trade apartments and would transfer the ownership legally. Classifieds had ads like “want to swap a 2 bedroom in XYZ for two 1 bedrooms in XYZ”.
  • Elections were taken very seriously, despite each ballot box having one candidate — an obvious case of cargo cult elections. Still, a high voter turnout was still considered as an important proxy for the people’s confidence in their government. There were election drives and campaigns some of which my grandfather and mum were involved in. My grandfather would tell of how he would go door-knocking and agitating people in his workplace etc to vote. Please please please go vote (for the Sole Candidate), because you have to participate in this civic duty.
  • While going abroad wouldn’t get you executed for espionage like in Stalin’s era, it was still next to impossible. Because we had relatives in France, dad was able to go briefly in 1987 and 1989 after getting invitation letters and a thousand other things. My great grandma (a member of the Party since pretty much its inception) was denied permission. She was told she was “too valuable” to the Party and the capitalists will create a provocation for her in France. In 1989, my mum was allowed to go with dad but I had to stay behind all hostage-like.
  • My parents’ trip to France was eye-opening for their later decision to emigrate. They were genuinely surprised that France had a higher standard of living than the Soviet Union. That’s how all-pervasive the propaganda and information siloing was: they thought most people in France were destitute compared to the USSR. There’s an interesting parallel with a recent North Korea propaganda video that depicts the US as consisting entirely of homeless people who drink tea made of snow.
  • Children were generally not allowed in restaurants or cafeterias — it wasn’t “proper”. Meaning that travelling with kids was its own special kind of nightmare. I still remember my last few days in the country when we were in Leningrad waiting for the ship to leave. It involved me wandering around with my grandparents, them trying to find some pkace where I could eat.
  • It was a given that if you were a Jew, you would not be going to uni unless your brilliance was one in a million. You would have to make do with a second tier “institute”, tech college and the like. So, when my great grandmother kept being told that I was at uni (the repetition being due to dementia), something pretty trivial for Australia was to her an emotional eventof celebration.
  • It was taken for granted that the Organs (ie. various authoritarian state departments) could and would be listening to any phone conversation. Of course, with the lack of free information available, it’s likely that people’s perceptions were influenced by rumour and exaggeration. But there were a few incidents with my family that suggest that calls were routinely listened to. For example, in 1988 there were celebrations planned for the millenial anniversary of Christianity in Russia. Rumours flew around the Jewish community in Moscow that a large number of people were planning a pogrom in the suburbs surrounding Moscow’s Danilov Monastery. My mum was on the phone to her mum in another town, explaining that she was considering leaving town while the celebrations were on. Twice, the phone-line got disconnected just as she started to explain the reason. The third time she called, she explained to whoever was listening that she won’t broach the subject again. Of course, it could easily be a coincidence — although due to my grandfather having a security clearance, my family might have been higher up on the importance list than the general population. But it speaks a lot about the kind of atmosphere that citizens felt like they were living in.

How lucky am I now to have absolutely nothing in my culture that’s this silly and pointless that outsiders can laugh at!